El Clásico. FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.
It’s the classic ‘good versus evil’ duel, blown a thousand times out of proportion. It’s a battle between left and right, liberalism and conservatism, peripheral autonomy and central nationalism, Catalunya and Spain. At least, that’s what the media wants us to believe, with its months-long countdowns and incredibly polarizing hype. Fuel the trash talk fire! It’s what made my first trip to the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu perplexing, to put it lightly. It might be more accurately described as … identity-crushing and confusing AF.
It was a frigid Wednesday evening in Madrid – January 30th, 2013 to be precise – and it marked the 194th edition of this historic rivalry. After hours of fidgety anticipation spent in a line extending well beyond the perimeter of the Santiago Bernabéu, I was about to step foot into the mystifying, iconic stadium with 80,000 other fans from around the world to watch these two bitter rivals battle it out before my very eyes.
75’ til kickoff and the energy was already exhilarating. No sooner had I sat down than I started to hear deafening whistles from visiting fans ringing out from all corners of the stadium. As a neutral fan carrying preconceived notions of where the two teams lie on the political spectrum, I felt inclined to join their ranks, booing the hometown heroes warming up on the pitch below me. Madrid was the team commonly associated with the late dictator, General Francisco Franco, and Barcelona was the team of the left … Right? How could I possibly align myself with a team that seemed – from its very inception in 1902 – so firmly placed on the wrong side of history?
That match ended 1-1, but its impact on my life didn’t terminate with the final whistle; El Clásico provided me with an opportunity for soul searching, an occasion for me to come to terms with my fledgling Spanish fútbol fandom. Nothing was black and white, nor was it blue and red. I forced myself to look beyond the stereotypes; I came to understand that the rivalry plays out as “history reinvented again and again to the level of mythology, demigods fueled by exaggeration and by propaganda, played out by symbols, heroes and villains” (Jimmy Burns, Barça: A People’s Passion).
The roles that FC Barcelona and Real Madrid have been given, and their identities in regional, political and even purely footballing terms, are far more paradoxical and complex than one would initially imagine, if one’s only ever heard the generalized notions of what the two teams represent.
This mythological grandeur is never more acutely felt than in the buildup to yet another edition of this fabled football showdown. Which is where we find ourselves now, amidst the shitstorm that is El Clásico mass media hype.
Media-driven myths portray two clubs with two irreconcilable political identifications. However, the events that took place primarily during Spain’s tumultuous 1930s are indicative of the fact that these two teams serve as both politically and regionally charged bodies that reflect extremely complicated relations. Peep the historical footnotes below for just a few examples of complications to the story we know and love (read: *HATE*):
Madrid was led by Rafael Sánchez Guerra, a crucial figure in the officially constituted Republican government, throughout the first half of the 1930s
The municipal elections on 12 April 1931 – after the fall of the Miguel Primo de Rivera dictatorship and the subsequent dictablanda of General Dámasco Berenguer – displayed the strength of anti-monarchist sentiment permeating through Spain and led to republican victories in forty-one of Spain’s fifty provincial capitals. King Alfonso XIII fled the country, the Second Republic was declared, and a center-left coalition took power aiming to “modernize Spain economically, to initiate democratizing reforms and to Europeanize the country socially and culturally” (Helen Graham, The Spanish Republic at War, 1936-1939).
Born in the capital on 28 October 1897, Sánchez Guerra was a prominent republican figure and secretary general to Republic President Alcalá-Zamora. In his autobiographical work, Mis prisiones, Sánchez Guerra writes of being visited by Franco before the 1936 Copa de España win over Barça, when the general attempted to assure him that “he had no intention of rising against the democratic regime” (Rafael Sánchez Guerra, Mis prisiones). Despite playing a hugely influential role in the evolution of Madrid CF over the course of the 1930s, little attention is paid to his political allegiances.
Josep Sunyol – Barcelona’s assassinated president – was honored by a sporting battalion in the capital long before he was recognized at home in Catalunya
On 17 July 1936, Franco proclaimed “Españoles: ¡Viva España! ¡Viva el honrado pueblo Español!,” thus initiating the brutal Spanish Civil War and the eventual establishment of his thirty-six-year dictatorship. The assassination of Sunyol on the outskirts of Madrid a few weeks later “gave the club a martyr for the cause, to become an enduring symbol and legacy of identity, destiny, and oppression for future generations, a testimony to the barbarism at the core of Falangism, at the heart of Madridista” (Jim O’Brien, “‘El Clasico’ and the Demise of Tradition in Spanish Club Football: Perspectives on Shifting Patterns of Cultural Identity”). What often goes unspoken is the creation of the Sunyol Sporting Battalion by people in Madrid – comprised of the likes of Madrid CF’s Félix Quesada, José Luis Espinosa and Simón Lecue – a republican regiment charged with fighting Fascism in Sunyol’s honor. The late president was promoted as a symbol of republicanism by madrileños well before Catalunya (struggling against censorship, it must be noted) publicly honored the Barcelona president.
The democratization of Madrid CF saw the displacement of old right-wing socios in favor of left-leaning ones
The breakdown, divisions and dangers of Spanish football at the onset of the war were accompanied by changes to internal club organizations as well. Although often overlooked, Madrid CF demonstrated that it was above all a democratic institution and not the conservative, militaristic brainchild of Franco. The organization of the equipo madrileño underwent severe fragmentation at this time, and saw the displacement of its old elite socios due in large part to the democratization that took place under Sánchez Guerra.
Ángel Bahamonde describes this division as a confrontation between “el Real Madrid y el Madrid a secas,” between the old conservative elites that had maintained positions of preeminence in the club from years past, and the new socios from popular classes that had been incorporated since the opening of the Estadio Chamartín in 1924 (Ángel Bahamonde, El Real Madrid En La Historia de España). He signals three militant positions among socios at this time: traditional elites from the political right; a minority of old socios from the club’s amateur period who were more open; and fans from the political left, previously considered insignificant as they had not yet been affiliated with the club for four consecutive years. Democratization gave this last group much more importance within the club’s organization.
Barcelona refused Madrid CF’s petition to enter its regional Campeonato de Catalunya, demonstrating a poignant lack of unity in the face of Fascism
The division of Spain into two conflicting warzones promoted a situation in which football could only be practiced in relative tranquility in three regions: Levante, Galicia, and Catalunya. As a result, from 1936 to 1939, Madrid had little opportunity for consistent play. But when the club appealed for a place in Barcelona’s regional tournament – arguing for unity in the face of Fascism – the latter refused, stating that Madrid’s inclusion would alter the essence of the competition. Burns speculates as to what “Sunyol, had he survived, would have thought of such a display of Republican solidarity” (or lack thereof) on the part of FCB officials (Burns, Barça: A People’s Passion).
Barcelona was perhaps slightly more aristocratic in origin than its counterpart in the capital
Popular rendering of the rivalry tells us Barcelona is the club of the people, but its history sometimes suggests otherwise. A lack of funding led founder Joan Gampert to promote FCB as a Catalan club, gaining the support of the city’s bourgeoisie contingent and thus giving the team a much-overlooked conservative, upper middle-class support base. He established a relationship with Francesc Cambó i Batlle – a city councilor and leader of the right-wing Lliga Regionalista – as early as 1908, and the successful creation of the Mancomunitat de Catalunya in 1914 produced an even stronger affiliation with the Catalan autonomy movement and other members of the Lliga.
Madrid CF’s founder was actually a Catalan man
Barça is known for its identification with Catalunya, so it will perhaps shock many to hear that Carlos Padrós – Madrid CF’s founder and the man described as the “patriarch of football madrileño” – was actually a Catalan (Bahamonde, El Real Madrid En La Historia de España). This surprising fact goes unnoted on Madrid’s official website.
Moral of the story? What we know is wrong. (Well, most of it).
Sid Lowe makes an essential point when writing, “symbolism is central, the construction of a narrative plays a key role and myths matter, but there are caveats everywhere, important flaws in the popularly held identities of the two clubs” (Sid Lowe, Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona Vs Real Madrid). Real Madrid is effectively converted into a symbol of dictatorship and centralism in carefully constructed (generalized) narratives, while Barcelona is transformed into the team that represents més que un club, “more than a club.”
Football unites people in both physical and metaphorical ways. It provides a means for collective identity. It brings people together and distinguishes them from their opposition. The identity creation taking place on the football pitch and in stadiums has the power to provide novel insight on constructions of nation, place and identity, particularly during times of great change like those of turn-of-the-century Spain.
But despite football’s power to unite, this communal identification, this shared differentness, often stops at the stadium or region’s boundaries, even at the sight of a shirt that’s incompatible with the one on our backs. It’s us-vs-them through and through, and that intensity only grows stronger when spoken of in relation to rivalries that span over decades (and decades and decades). It’s Barcelona vs. Madrid, it always will be. Mythological elements of the rivalry carry weight simply because they are so prevalent and persistent in our minds.
Here’s to hoping for a day when we can view these two for what they really are: *similar* sporting institutions with unbelievable legacies of Spanish football hegemony. (While we’re at it, let’s try not to play the demigod exaggerations up too much either).
For more, check out Lopez’s thesis, “Real Madrid and FC Barcelona: A new narrative of of football rivalry in 1930s Spain” here.